Earl tried to think about enjoying himself when he took his shoes off for the last time, but instead, unable to help it as always, he thought about the thousands of people who couldn’t come out that night:
That story about the guy who tried to make a Facebook event where everyone would go outside at night and watch the satellites fall like a meteor shower, only to find that no one showed up because apparently you need satellites to make Facebook work to RSVP to an event, which he found out because the algorithm in its last gasp for breath suggested it on his wall and asked for a like or reaction from him before dying out for everyone. The poor souls who heard that people were vanishing and knew it was time, that the Lord was ready to lift up the chosen in rapture, some not too bright who despaired because He picked up everyone in the east before He got to us and thought “guess the Buddhists were right after all”, yet some others who were so sure they were getting picked up they climbed on the roofs of their houses, and when one of their saved friends jumped first and didn’t get back up, they realized in a big way that hm, maybe it’s not the Rapture after all. Others just as unlucky, but tragically rather than comically: people camping out miles away from civilization in woods or canyons who counted on a GPS to get them home and most likely starved to death or else kept a bear or puma from starving, people on life support depending on a power plant technically in a different time zone, people mid-flight whose planes shut down before the government knew to ground the flights in time. He wondered what Japan and the Pacific looked like, all those skyscrapers and old pagodas next to each other, now all heaped into a nuclear-fried crater on fire, wondered how long it would take for parts of China, Russia, Europe, the Middle East, then the Eastern Seaboard, to join them, as everyone in order from the international date line down abandons their own power plants.
All those people couldn’t come tonight, all sad in their own ways, but most of all he thought about his parents. Just before it was time for Pennsylvania to go, he had a chance to video chat with them. It was early on their end, which meant he had to wake up at five in the morning to do it. He didn’t mind this time since he knew he barely had that much of a window left, and was frankly surprised that the towers over there were even working, and wondered what sad saps were there who kept doing their jobs for free, providing service to people who would never thank them. Even then, he couldn’t help but think about them right before his parents answered the call and their images came onto his screen. It started out like how they always do at first, how have you been, what’s the west coast like, and so on. Then it got uncomfortable: they told him everyone else in the family was coming, as it turned out the reunion they were planning for a while fell on that day, and we thought we’d do a little bit of outdoor fun, stuff you don’t need power for, cookouts, games, stuff like that. They thought about him every day, and missed him, and were glad to hear he was doing well. He apologized for not making it out himself, the flights were already grounded before he got the chance to get a ticket. They told him they understood, which made it worse, because he knew it upset them more than they let on: he lived with his parents after school, longer than he would have liked back then, and after being raised by them for years they were both surprised at how poorly they got along together. He loved them of course, but vowed when he moved out he’d never move back in. He’d visit from time to time (back when there was time), but out here was where he’d belong, to make it in writing. They knew this as well, and he knew it was on their minds when they said it’s fine, don’t worry, we know you want to spend time with your friends. The last thing his parents said to him, before the last goodbyes and love yous, was how, with a laugh, they found all those old Seinfeld tapes and thought they’d try watching some, by hooking up the TV to a generator, but they couldn’t hear any of them because the generator was so loud. Remember, we taped all of them? We used to watch them together, you loved that show, remember? That’s what made you want to be a writer, wasn’t it?
He looked at his feet, which still had too-tight black Converse sneakers on, amid a pile of what had to be thousands of shoes, where the implication was clear, once you join this party you won’t need shoes ever again. He realized then that he made the choice to be here instead of with his entire family.
Jon Borneau finally arrived. Earl never did show up to these things right on the dime, but to be fair he didn’t either, but to be fair he only decided to be late because he thought he’d be late too. Jon walked up to him, asked what’s up, then looked at the pile of shoes, and while taking out his phone to snap a shot, kicked his sandals in with two vigorous kicks before joining up with the others. Earl finally decided now was the time to jump in, but he had to bend down and untie his sneakers first. It took forever to get them on too, he thought, and every time we went out somewhere his friends had to wait up for him to tie them too-tight. Even then, digging his toes into the sand, he still hesitated, still kept himself waiting from a good time, realizing it had been years since he bothered to go to the beach, even though he lived right next to one, but finally Jon grabbed him by the shirt and led him in.
The party boggled Earl’s mind, enormous in its impossibility as much as its size. On the precipice of oblivion and hundreds, maybe thousands of people his age and not much older or younger gathered together like they were all still in college whether they were or not. It was almost dusk when he arrived, dark enough to start lighting the dozens of tiki torches and Christmas lights strewn about the palm trees, but light to make out enough faces to realize he barely knew any of them. All of them, however, or what seemed like most of them, knew Jon, and all of them exclaimed at his presence with a staccato pronunciation of his name like a single three-syllable word, hey! JonBorneau! Others kept up the tradition of very cutely swapping the first letters of his name. Earl couldn’t think of anyone aside from himself who simply called him Jon. Maybe his parents?
Earl, keeping Jon in his sight, sidled away to grab a beer, opening the bottle with the cap opener still on his keychain. He would take a sip or two of the perfectly suitable IPA he happened to grab from the community cooler, then he would ask. He did this, then looked around and realized with a grumble that he lost him to the party. Oh well, I’m sure it’s not the last time I’ll ever see him, he thought with a perverse laugh. Then, sobering a bit, told himself I have the whole night left. What do I, indeed what do any of us here, have other than the whole night?
The first sound he noticed, above the din of worthless chatter, was generators. Everything was powered by whatever gas they could siphon from abandoned cars, since everyone left the power plants days ago, and everything was offline, all the music played and films projected were either analog or hard files saved to phones, going until their batteries run out for one last hurrah.
There was a band playing. Looks like they got together a karaoke band. The waiting list was long, sure, but nonetheless they seemed to be prepared to play any song that anybody could ask for. The four bars of piano he heard made Earl’s initial happiness disappear. You really can’t get away from this song, no matter where you go. Still, what did he expect? The important words were any song anybody could ask for. Perhaps a better choice of word is would. Makes the band look not so encyclopedic after all. I mean, what did he honestly think people would request? Hex Education Hour is pretty hard to get through all the way even when we’re not all living on borrowed time. Who would honestly get it, who would laugh and tell him how clever he was, if he made the request and then ask the band who’s going to be my granny on the bongos?
Sometimes, when Earl rode too fast on his bike, in heavy traffic, with no helmet, and with his headphones on, he imagined himself dying. Would he be satisfied with the song he was listening to when a car slams into him, when he falls off and snaps his neck on the pavement? Sometimes he’d ask himself what he’d like the last song he’d ever hear to be if he had the chance to choose it, the quintessential theme song of being alive playing the moment before his death. The first time he ever thought this thought, he was a freshman in high school and the song was “Stinkfist”. Once he grew up, got over his angsty axe to grind, and started pirating music, his choices became more sophisticated: Pet Sounds came up a lot. OK Computer was an early favorite, and “Let Down” made him cry once. “The Laws Have Changed”, with that great nanana falsetto hook, “Sister Ray”, an orgy of noise and cacophony and drugs and debauchery and murder, and that’s just the first three minutes. “We Can’t Be Beat,” off the appropriately named Heaven, but he could have taken any Walkmen cut with one of those slow builds that lead to those climaxes, those anthems. Speaking of heaven, he always thought the first thirty seconds of “Days of Candy” were what had to be what people hear when they ascend there for the first time.
Off in the distance somewhere he heard another JonBorneau! which didn’t snap him out of his reverie so much as make him mad for having it. I had ninety gigs of music, and he has three hundred friends. The illusion of choice, I suppose. Ninety gigs and a real opportunity to pick a last song, and I can’t think of a single one.
He finished his beer, looked for a recycling bin before he kicked himself for thinking of something so stupid and threw the bottle on the sand. There were some tents and gazebos with lines of people waiting for food, so he approached one that smelled like barbecue, grabbed a styrofoam plate and plastic cutlery, and took a place in line. It moved at a pretty glacial pace to be expected, but what did he care? Was the wait cutting into his time to hang out with all his LA friends?
A man approached him, wearing a Hawaiian shirt that, now that Earl was paying attention, matched with a bunch of other Hawaiian-shirt-wearing men. He held up a tray of aperitifs, and without thinking Earl grabbed a little glass and pounded the stuff down, throwing the glass aside. It was maybe a half a minute later that Earl looked off to his side and noticed the guy was still beside him, probably holding the same amount of drinks since he last saw him.
—Something wrong with the cocktail, sir?
—Uh, no, it was fine. Thanks.
A few seconds passed. The Hawaiian shirt guy stayed put.
—So… no tip, then?
—Wh… what? Really?
He looked around, then at the Hawaiian shirt guy, then the barbecue line, each sight filling him with increasing dread. God, these people are working. It made sense at first with the band, maybe some guys wanted to go out playing the music that they loved one last time. But Jesus, those guys had other guys checking the levels on the PAs, guys setting up the equipment. And maybe there’s a couple people in the tents who were master chefs in their day and wouldn’t mind cooking one last time (makes sense to do the one thing you’re good at, to assert your worth before you disappear, so at least someone around you knows it for at least a little while). But Jesus. Those guys are going to disappear forever, wearing a barbecue-sauce-stained white shirt and apron, serving pulled pork to people who will never think about them once. And those guys over there, about to die a roadie to the bitter end!
Nauseated, Earl scrambled together all he had in his wallet, a single dollar (why did I even bring it?). The server scoffed at the dollar, called Earl an asshole under his breath and offered a cocktail to the next person in line.
The song, still playing when Earl left the barbecue line, now made him angry. Not just because it was obvious, played out, but also, in this specific context, patently untrue. There are no more small-town kids left to try and make it in the big city; the last of them in the Midwest vanished last night. And the rest of us, well that’s why we’re all here, isn’t it? Didn’t we all stop believing the moment we kicked our shoes onto the pile?
Against all odds, Earl decided to sample his profile after all. He didn’t even have to type a B before the search bar, like a sympathetic bartender who knows his regulars, suggested @bonjorneau. Hm, that’s weird… Nothing. No pictures, no comments, a totally empty profile. Not that it mattered that much, all the greatest hits and more came to him involuntarily anyway: Rome first, of course, to make the pun work, copious shots of the Sistine Chapel (trust me, you never seen anything like this till you’ve seen it up close #italy #sistinechapel #bonjorneau); Moorish castles and sun-kissed villages snuggled up against cobblestone streets (sudden news flash: SPAIN IS EVERYTHING! #spain #barthelona #eurotrip); upon a tiny boat among the canals of Amsterdam, impossibly colorful with flowers pouring off the walls when Earl in other pictures only saw drab dingy Medieval houses (canal colors! #amsterdam #smokin #yolotrip): wearing a bindi and white smock smeared with powdered stains of the whole rainbow, hands together in prayer in front of hundreds of color-smacked people just like him (can’t talk, on a holi-day #india #holi #delhitrip #namastebitch) a favela with tiny houses stacked one by one, each one painted a different color (why live plainly? #brasil #favelas #riotrip); a deep blue lake between a green valley, laid out before his brown-booted feet (heaven is a place on earth, and I think I found it! #iceland #fjords #itsnotactuallyicyhere); his bare feet at a beach somewhere (now this is livin! #cancun #mehico); his bare feet on a boat somewhere (I’m on a boat! #boatlife #sunset #imonaboat).
Earl had a little joke for him after the first seven or so trips: He had watched one episode of Game of Thrones at the time, way out of sequence somewhere in season one, and after starting the books not long after it would become the only episode he saw. It was the only part of the episode that made him laugh: since then he’d walk by Jon’s side and heave out his gut like the King and declare, back in my day you weren’t considered a man until you’ve fucked a girl from every continent in the world and both of the polar caps too. We used to call it “making the eight.” You ever make the eight Jon Borneau?
Sometimes, in the heat of the inescapable mid-season meme barrage, Earl could swear he was the only one in the world who hated GOT. The fan response to the show, he’d always say to anyone who was willing to hear (so, not very many), was intemperate compared to the quality of it, and especially the books, which ranged from okay starting out to almost unreadable by book four. The responses were inconsistent: fans would admire the fact that everyone dies unexpectedly, then whine when someone gets killed off, or be shocked at a certain wedding that they were never expecting people would die unexpectedly at, or feel sad about those characters deaths when they complained two episodes ago about how dumb their choices and motivations were. And spoilers. The only people who weren’t gushing about the show were instead whining that everyone else please don’t spoil it for them please. He didn’t even like fantasy that much before he wrote his first and only-finished (which, of course, translates to only-good) book. He was just sure that, with a healthy appreciation of the Lord of the Rings movies, (much) fewer, more fleshed-out characters, and a story that actually wraps up!, he could do a far better job of it.
Earl picked the wrong thing to be good at, he thought just then, if it was even possible to pick what you’re good at. Back in school, Earl wrote the words and Jon shot the pictures, and they were a good team then. Boy, was the balance uneven in that working relationship or what. Earl, it seemed many times, needed Jon, needed him to read his words and let him know if they were good, since he never trusted that they ever were himself. But Jon, even though he never said it out loud, even though he probably enjoyed his friendship, never really needed Earl. His feed was a testament to that: once he learned how to turn a lens and push a button the merits of his work were instantly, easily recognized by as many people as possible, by the a capella oohs and aahs of his international photographic firework shows, or later on in the form of digital red hearts. Jon traveled the world and commodified the beauty he saw all over it in digital format (and Jesus, how could he forget the camera-fetish shots that also took up his feed?), while Earl, when he wasn’t sitting at home researching his book (which devolved into aimless browsing, which devolved into jerking off, which devolved into playing video games or, if he was lucky, reading something of merit, which devolved into falling asleep after reading two pages of that something of merit), sat at home and worked on his book. And then one he finished it, and he asked around if anyone wanted to read it, and only his mom and dad said yes, and only his mom finished it, and she told him it was good but some of the parts with the bigger words were hard to understand.
Earl soon grew tired of the live feed in his head of Jon’s party he was missing out on, and finally sought him out. He was sitting cross-legged on the sand around twenty or so other people, and this time he was talking about Bali, when Earl awkwardly sidled into the group. He’d wait until he was done, and once he walks off he’d follow, and then he’d finally ask him.
—Everyone, this is my friend Earl. We went to school together! You should see the movie we made together, it’s up on…
—Oh, right… well…
—It’s crazy how many places he’s been to, isn’t it? He was talking about Bali just now. Have you ever been to Bali?
—No. I mean I like the kecak stage in King of Fighters ’97, but otherwise… um… no, not yet. Maybe someday though.
A moment of silence. As always, no one got his little joke. They continued.
—Yeah, so I was saying… it’s been making me think… well, about all this.
—What do you mean?
—Well, what’s going on in the world? All the people disappearing. I have some theories.
Earl rolled his eyes. Of course, Jon wanted nothing more than to expound those theories, but his fake evasiveness, this fishing for permission to indulge the crowd, irritated him. After exactly such pleas for him to continue from the others, Jon did so.
—Well, you know, how it started along the International Date Line, and how it’s going in order, from east to west, from the sun rise to sun set. It seems to me, whatever force is doing it, if it is a force, is intelligent. It knows about how we measure time, and it seems to me like it’s taking people away on purpose, maybe for some reason. Here, I want to show you this.
He took out his phone and held it up to the others, cycling through some shots while he spoke. Earl couldn’t believe it. He had bars! And there they were, all the shots he had been taking of the night: the shot of all the shoes (wow, so many people here! #livinonaprayer); his bare feet on a beach, illuminated by tiki torches and palm trees with Christmas lights, with a corona in his free hand and the starlit (or maybe falling-satellite-lit) water sparkling before him (end of the world party, just in case! #drinkupmehearties #beachpartytonight).
—I have every single shot of every place I’ve been to in the world. There’s got to be a hundred different monuments, buildings, mountains, forests… a whole collection of everything good the world, and human history, has to offer. And also, this party. Everyone here, enjoying their last moments on earth together.
The more he spoke, the more the others were rapt in attention, and the more it made Earl angry at them all. I mean I guess it’s possible that there’s one guy in a phone tower and somehow its giving Jon service against all odds. I bet though, if I know him, if there’s yet another opportunity to cheerlead for… yep, there it is. (Whoa! Last day and I’m still getting bars! #iphone10s #appletillidie).
—I took them all down from the other sites. I have it set for a time tonight, right at sunrise, for them all to upload into a cloud. An independent cloud, not owned by some shady company who has all my data, but my own piece of the cloud. Took a while to save up for it, had to skip out on my second trip to Argentina to afford it. But it’s all automated, which means the only thing I have to worry about is having a good time, for maybe the last time.
—Well, yeah. What is the cloud, anyway? I mean, if you think about it, it’s another dimension of existence. It’s made up of digital signals, but with this thing in my hand, it can turn back into an image of real life. Who’s to say, in a way, that it’s any less real than this, right here? It’s metaphysical, you know? And maybe… well, maybe that’s what’s going on. Maybe all the people are… well, getting uploaded, to a cloud, to a digital form. By something? Aliens? I don’t know. Maybe we’re going to another planet, or another plane of existence. Maybe, whatever it is that’s causing it, it’s trying to save us, to take us away from the earth, to a better place. And this? When we do get there, I want a record of all the things I saw, all the beauty, and history, and splendor, of the world… I want it there with me. I want to be able to show everyone, it wasn’t all bad. I guess that’s why I’m thinking… that all of this isn’t such a bad thing after—
—Oh, for fuck’s sake! I can’t take anymore of this!
Everyone suddenly turned to Earl. While before they merely took in his name and promptly forgot, this outburst made sure everyone would at least remember his face.
—This benevolent thing you’re talking about, taking us all up to a better place, it turned Japan into a crater. It’s fucking Mordor! You don’t just turn off a nuclear reactor and lock up for the night. They’ve all melted down by now, and China, and Europe, they’re all next, if they haven’t melted down already! I’m surprised the sky isn’t black from all the fallout! And for what? There are aliens? They’re taking us away from the earth, that we single-handedly destroyed? How is that any fucking thing to be proud of? They’re intergalactic hall monitors ratting on the human race, they’re baby sitters taking our toys away, because we’re not responsible enough to exist by ourselves! And what are you putting in the goddamn cloud that’s so great, that you want everyone to see? We drive our plants and animals to extinction, and all the buildings, and monuments, they’re all made of stone, and wood, and metal. They’re all going to wear and erode and rust away. You know what aliens will see a million years from now? Want to know what the human race built that will last forever? Plastic! Our garbage! Fossils of birds and fish with perfectly intact six-pack rings around their necks! A Fanta bottle in the bottom of the Marianas Trench!
The party started to quiet down as Earl became more heated. At the coda of his outburst he had their full attention:
—What are you all celebrating? We’re all going to die when the sun comes up! Don’t you get it? We’re all going to die!